Day 20: Exploring Istanbul Part 2

Posted: August 7, 2014 in Istanbul
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Today we were supposed to get up bright and early to visit some of the more popular museums and sights in Istanbul… Didn’t really happen as everyone was still pretty tired from our epic Veliko Tarnovo to Istanbul adventure but with a quick breakfast of yogurt and cereal (gotta love a room with a fridge when you’re traveling) we managed to get to Topkapi Palace around 10:30…

We started by purchasing our museum card (85 Turkish lira per person) at the Hagia Irene – way across the park from the massive crowd of people waiting in line to buy tickets to Topkapi Palace. The museum card gives you entrance to a bunch of the main museums and attractions (if you go to 4 of them it pretty much pays for itself) and is supposed to give you some kind of skip-the-line privileges. After purchasing our tickets we headed right into the Hagia Irene – there was no lineup to skip. In fact, including us, there were 5 people in the building when we entered… Which is a shame because it’s a really cool experience. Not worth 20 lira ($10 cdn) per person but still pretty cool.

Hagia Irene was a basilica church similar to the Hagia Sophia (in fact it was the second largest church in Istanbul for a long time). Now it’s a barebones shell of a basilica church – there’s basically no decoration at all in the building – just bare brick and rock. It really gives you a sense of how these buildings were constructed and how the decoration plays such an integral part in the creation of the finished inner space. The only downside is that they only allow you onto the main level of the building so you can’t really explore the upper levels (and there’s a big net to catch the pigeon poop that interferes with views of the main dome). We spent about a 1/2 hr exploring the space and then headed over to Topkapi Palace… we should have spent more time in the peace and tranquility of the Hagia Irene… we needed it.

We arrived at the Topkapi Palace entrance to find a massive queue of people trying to get in… That was because there is only one way in and out of the palace compound. And on the way in you must pass your bags through an x-ray machine and pass yourself through a metal detector… All while people are trying to get out as well. To say that it was chaotic would be a massive understatement. It was pure, unadulterated hell for anyone who hates crowds (that would be me) and it took disdain for the tourist (ie. the paying customer) to a level not even contemplated by the French (whose approach could best be summarized as “figure it out for yourself… we’re French after all”). People (okay, one poor young woman to accurate) were puking. There were tears. People were throwing elbows. Mothers were trying to push their kids in strollers while hordes of people jockeyed for position and tried to get into the compound. I survived by telling myself this is what it would have felt like if an invading army had breached the gates and was trying to storm the palace…

Finally, we entered the palace compound and found a large rectangular green space with buildings on all sides and lots of trees and courtyards scattered throughout… We hung a right and entered a display of kitchen stuff and food preparation equipment etc. (no pictures of course). It was well done (lots of multimedia stuff, good signage) and reasonably interesting – it didn’t blow my mind but it was interesting.

After the kitchen experience we headed out into the courtyard where a group of men in uniforms of various periods of the Ottoman Empire were banging on drums, playing a variety of instruments and “singing” – turns out this was the Janissary Band (elite infantry units that formed part of the Sultan’s household guard) doing what they do. They were probably pretty amazing soldiers and could probably do some amazing infantry type stuff… but sing… not so much. I don’t know if these guys have any connection to the military or are just summer students hired for the tourist gig (I think one guy was sporting a fake moustache) but the singing was a bit rough… The music overall was stirring though…

After the Janissary Band we made our way through another gate to the next level of compound. Once again, this was a one gate for everyone coming and going so it was a bit of a struggle to get through… I think Caitlin only threw a couple of elbows. Once through the bottle neck we were in another rectangular space with a variety of pavilions, buildings, etc. We chose the one on our right – turned out it was a treasury. The lineup was long. The inner space was hellacious – hot, minimal air flow, hordes of people and small, intricate treasures with teeny-tiny little signs explaining what they were (the whole experience would have been made more enjoyable by using a larger font – ie. one that people could read from more than 12″ away). Despite this, there were some very beautiful treasures (lots of gold and precious gems).

After this, things kind of devolved into a swarm of cruise ship passengers and small spaces. I remember one space where a whole bunch of precious relics of the prophets of Islam and the Old Testament were displayed (one was supposedly Moses’ staff – yeah the Ten Commandments, part the Red Sea Moses – personally I thought it would be bigger). There were simply too many people in the spaces for anyone to truly get anything from the displays or artifacts. And far too many people were just plain rude – cutting in lines, blocking spaces, pushing and shoving. It was unpleasant… and spectacularly hot… which is unfortunate because there were some really beautiful buildings and a lot of Ottoman history on display. But to be really honest, I love museums (ask Marie and Caitlin) and I was getting antsy to leave.

We considered grabbing something to drink at a restaurant/cafe with a spectacular view of Istanbul but were thwarted by the $7 ($14 lira) cans of coke and other ridiculously expensive prices. So we made our way to the Harem (the personal quarters of the royal family, concubines, etc.). It was actually pretty cool (literally and figuratively) and you could take pictures (bonus!).

After the Harem we left the palace compound and headed to a local self-serve restaurant for something to eat and then continued our exploration of Istanbul’s historic sites by heading to the Basilica Cistern. This one was really cool (again figuratively and literally). Literally because you’re a couple of stories underground in a large domed space with columns spaced every 5 metres or so… Figuratively because the whole space was designed and built as an underwater cistern (tank for storing water) back in the 6th century… It’s atmospherically lit and there are ghostly carp swimming around in the waters and it was gloriously cool… Albeit a little more crowded than I would have liked… but a welcome respite after the Topkapi Palace crowds and heat.

Reluctantly we made our way back into the sunshine and made our way to the Hagia Sophia – a huge basilica church built in 537 C.E. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (lots of scaffolding and plywood around) – I wasn’t even sure it was the actual Hagia Sophia at first (Caitlin was right) and there’s a huge scaffold constructed on one side of the interior but it’s an amazing space – as Marie said when we entered “this is one of those places you only get to see on National Geographic or those documentary channels.” It’s so visibly old and so big (the main dome is over 180′ high – you could fit an 18 story building in there!). Most of the decoration is pretty minimalist (flowers, geometric designs) so it survived the conversion to a mosque in the 1400s. Unfortunately, the mosaics depicting saints and figures from the Bible were plastered over when it was converted to a mosque and many were not recoverable. In all, we spent over an hour wandering around and taking pictures then headed outside and made our way back to our area through another bazaar (high end artisan stuff way out of our price league) and the old Hippodrome (rectangular shaped space used for chariot races, etc. back in the Roman times). We eventually made our way to our apartment (stopping a couple of times – first for ice cream and then Turkish tea) where we changed clothes (lots of sweat today) and regrouped and before heading out for dinner.

We ended up eating at the same touristy place we’d eaten at on our first night in Istanbul (the one we picked because the guy said Marie was calm and kind)… It was a good choice – our server remembered us from the night before and piled on the free stuff… We got the special bread hot from the oven, free tea (and apple tea for Marie) and free desserts. In the end, I think he brought out as much free stuff as our bill came to (30 lira or about $15 cdn for our whole dinner) – needless to say he got a great tip. And the food’s not bad at all.

After that it was time to head back to the apartment and call it a night. Tomorrow we’re planning to be up a bit earlier to try and get a jump on the lines at the Blue Mosque.

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